Government turns up the heat on cold callers as phone nuisances face crackdown

Ministers plan to enable watchdogs to investigate 'annoying' communications as well as those that cause distress

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Large companies which bombard householders with nuisance telephone calls and text messages face a crackdown amid growing alarm over the scale of the problem.

The Government announced steps today to make it easier for regulators to take action to stop firms plaguing people with a barrage of unsolicited calls and messages, many trying to sell Payment Protection Insurance schemes.

Ministers plan to reduce the legal threshold of what are judged to be "nuisance calls" to enable watchdogs to investigate "annoying" communications as well as those that cause distress.

Cold callers will also find it harder to conceal their numbers under the plans outlined by Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary. A licensing system for call centres could also be introduced.

The Independent disclosed in April that numbers of complaints about unwanted calls had trebled in just six months - and three-quarters of people who tried to block them still carried on receiving them against their wishes.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has said the majority of letters it receives from MPs concerns the upsurge of cold calling.

In a policy document published today, it said 82 per cent of people had recently told the communications regulator Ofcom they had been targeted by an unwanted caller - and on average received calls twice a week.

"These can be live marketing calls, silent calls, abandoned calls, and recorded marketing message calls. More often than not, it is perceived as a nuisance, but it can also cause anxiety, inconvenience and distress," the department said.

At the moment the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) can only take action against rogue firms if it can demonstrate that unwanted calls are "distressing" for recipients, meaning watchdogs typically have to wait until thousands of calls have been made. In future they will have to show that calls were "annoying" for householders, a lower burden of proof.

The department said it was drawing up plans to stop cold callers withholding their numbers and to make it easier for the ICO and Ofcom, which has responsibility for tackling "silent calls", to share information about unscrupulous operators.

It also wants to make it more straightforward for householders to opt out of receiving marketing calls and to report unwanted calls.

It said it believed "significant improvements" could be made voluntarily, but was ready to legislate if progress is not shown by the autumn.

"If we cannot see clear progress we will consider further legislation, for example, to license call centres, and/or bring together functions to tackle nuisance calls and texts under a single regulator," the department said.

In other moves, Ms Miller called for telecommunications companies to do more to protect customers from huge bills run up by thieves if their mobile phones are stolen.

And she urged them to make clearer to people the costs of using premium rate services, where payments for goods are charged to a phone bill or pre-paid account.

Ms Miller said: "The communications industry has undergone change at an unprecedented pace over the last decade. In this digital age we must ensure the needs of the consumer are not lost in the dash for progress and the changes we are making will put the British public at the heart of the sector."